Ten years ago, I was sitting together with other invited guests during the Republic of South Sudan independence celebrations on the day that South Sudan was declared a free nation, when I saw an elderly man with a white handkerchief in his hand, walking slowly towards the podium. The independence celebrations were already underway and the podium was crowded with African heads of states. The stadium was quiet, possibly because everyone was puzzled that this elderly man was walking towards the stage when everyone was already seated. When the master of ceremonies announced that the man was Kenneth David Kaunda the venue buzzed with excitement.
Everyone on the main podium where the heads of states and prime ministers were seated stood up and clapped until Mzee Kaunda was seated. Many of those seating near me were wondering how Kaunda had entered the stadium while all the presidents, including the host president, had already arrived. Foreign affairs officials of the United Republic of Tanzania later explained to me that Mzee was late because his flight had been delayed. The reception he received at the stadium showed the esteem with which the elders who started and led the struggle for freedom were held even in their retirement years. It was a big honour for the Republic of South Sudan that the former president of Zambia and the second Chairman of the Frontline States was present on the day the country became independent.
A few months later, around March 2012, I was lucky to meet Mzee Kaunda. I was in Lusaka on parliamentary business and I requested that the Zambian parliament afford me the opportunity to pay him a visit. Mzee Kaunda received me warmly in his office and we spoke about a number of African issues. The conversation was essentially Kaunda answering my questions about African liberation movements. I remember that as you enter his office, there is a photo of Mzee Kaunda, Mwalimu Julius Nyerere and Mzee Jomo Kenyatta taken at the airport in Nairobi as they wait for their flight to the United Kingdom.
This was before their countries became fully independent; it was the time of self-government, when both Kaunda and Kenyatta were Prime Ministers. Tanganyika had already obtained full independence, although this was prior to the formation of the United Republic of Tanzania. I asked Mzee Kaunda if he could remember when that photo was taken and he said that it was in January 1964. They were young, smart individuals who possessed a lot of self-confidence. Mzee Kaunda explained to me how at the time, Africa had a lot of hope and he spoke of his very close relationship with Mwalimu Nyerere and even with Mzee Kenyatta, although their politics were not very similar. All three are now no longer with us. Mzee Kenneth David Kaunda passed away on Thursday 17th June 2021 in Lusaka, Zambia.
Kenneth Kaunda, popularly known as KK, was the only surviving founding president of an independent African state. But he was not a founding president of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU). Zambia was not an independent state when the OAU was formed on the 25th of May 1963 and neither Kaunda nor Jomo Kenyatta were amongst the leaders who signed the OAU Charter. Zambia joined the OAU on the 26th of February 1965. It is however easy to assume that KK was a founder of the OAU as he was at the forefront of the independence struggle in Africa and because Zambia gained independence shortly after the OAU was formed. KK believed strongly in the OAU and took part in almost all its meetings. He became the Chairman of the OAU in 1970 at the 7th meeting of Heads of States in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
As Zambia gained its independence, Mozambique and Angola were engaged in the struggle for independence from Portuguese colonial power, while South Africa and Namibia were fighting the white supremacist apartheid regime. And although Zambia was surrounded by countries that had already gained their independence — Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)) and Malawi — it only had close relations with Tanzania and Botswana. Under Kamuzu Banda, Malawi had close relations with Apartheid South Africa while Zaire was used by Western nations against liberation movements. Zambia was going through trying times. Being a landlocked country, the country could either transport goods through the ports of Beira and Nacala in Mozambique, which was under Portuguese rule, or through Southern Rhodesia (present-day Zimbabwe), which was under Ian Smith’s settler rule. This is where Kaunda’s leadership underwent trying times – to protect his country’s interests by cooperating with the apartheid regime or to support the struggle for freedom from colonialism in Africa. Kaunda chose the latter option at a very high cost.
Kenneth Kaunda, popularly known as KK, was the only surviving founding president of an independent African state.
President Kaunda started the Mulungushi Club together with President Nyerere and President Milton Obote of Uganda whose aim was national reconstruction. Unfortunately, President Obote was overthrown by Idi Amin in 1971, leaving only Kaunda and Nyerere. They invited President Seretse Khama of Botswana to one of their meetings, during which, for the first time, the name Frontline States was used. That first meeting was held in Lusaka, Zambia and Mwalimu Julius Nyerere was the first chairman of the Frontline States, contrary to custom which dictates that the president of the host state should be chairman. Mark Chona, special assistant to President Kaunda, has documented in the Hashim Mbita Project – Southern African Liberation Struggles Contemporaneous Documents 1960 – 1994 how Nyerere became chairman:
It was on the issue of releasing from prison the Zimbabwean freedom fighters, the first meeting was in October when I was sent to Cape Town and KK wanted to give a recap to President Nyerere and President Khama. Once seated Mwalimu said “oh! Kenneth, you are the host. I request that you should be the chairman” and KK said “No, Mwalimu please chair the meeting, I am only a host.” At the second meeting, Mwalimu again requested that Kaunda should be the chairman and again Kaunda said “No, no, you spoke very well at the first meeting, please continue to chair the meetings” and that is how Mwalimu Nyerere carried on as the Chairman of Frontline states until 1985 the end of his presidency in Tanzania. That is Mzee Kaunda then became Chairman and he continued with this role until he lost the election in Zambia in 1991.
President Kaunda is essentially remembered for his role in African liberation. In his time, Zambia served liberation movements, resolving disputes within the movements, providing financial assistance and preparing them to run their countries. Zambia came under military attack from Ian Smith’s Rhodesia and Apartheid South Africa and was even threatened with nuclear bombing by the Apartheid regime. In order to stop Zambia from being dependent on the ports in Mozambique and South Africa, President Kaunda and President Nyerere decided to seek assistance from China to build the TAZARA railway. At one point, Zambia also started efforts to develop a nuclear bomb to be used against South Africa.
Members of the Frontline States increased to six when Angola, Mozambique and Zimbabwe gained independence. The biggest task remaining was to liberate Namibia and South Africa, both of which became independent in 1991 and 1994, respectively. Mzee Kenneth Kaunda was at the forefront in ensuring the success of the liberation struggle, during which many lives were lost.
Kenneth Kaunda’s power handover was a big lesson on democracy for Africa when he conceded defeat in an election and handed over the presidency to Frederick Chiluba in 1991.
Kenneth Kaunda also made decisions that either brought misunderstandings between him and his fellow leaders of the Frontline States, or convinced them to take positions that were contrary to those of the OAU. Three issues will be remembered the most. The first was recognising the secession of Biafra from the Federal State of Nigeria. This decision, which was made by only four countries in Africa – Zambia, Gabon, Ivory Coast and Tanzania – caused a lot of misunderstanding among African heads of states. Tanzania recognised the Republic of Biafra on the 13th of April 1968 and Zambia did the same a month later on the 20th May 1968. I was told by a former ambassador from Tanzania who had attended the 5th OAU general meeting which took place in September 1968 in Algiers, Algeria, where the issue of Biafra was discussed, that President Kaunda was verbally attacked by his fellow presidents to the point that he had to leave the meeting. His friend Mwalimu Nyerere did not attend the meeting but sent his friend Rashidi Kawawa instead. KK continued to believe in Biafra for a long time and in November 2011 he attended the funeral of Lt. Colonel Odumegwu Ojukwu, who had been the leader of secessionist Biafra.
The second issue was recognising Angola’s independence. Angola obtained independence from Portugal in 1975 following years of armed struggle. The 1975 military coup in Portugal opened the way for independence talks that were led by Zambia. As none of the country’s three liberation movements — the MPLA led by Augustino Neto, União Nacional para a Independência Total de Angola (UNITA) led by Jonas Savimbi and Frente Nacional de Libertação de Angola (FLNA) led by Holden Roberto — had control over Luanda, the OAU intervened and a vote was organised to decide which of the three parties would take over from Portugal.
The results of the vote did not produce an outright winner and OAU member states were very divided on this. At a meeting of African heads of state in Addis Ababa, President Kaunda gave a speech that showed his support for UNITA which really angered Mwalimu Nyerere and the Tanzanian delegation. Mwalimu Nyerere therefore decided against giving his speech and instead only said a few words in response to the president of Senegal.
Journalist and lawyer Jenerali Ulimwengu, who was in Addis Ababa as the Deputy Chairman of the Pan-African Youth Movement, told me that the situation had been very tense. The MPLA decided to enter Luanda and declare independence after Portugal surrendered the instruments of power. Jenerali, who was present in Luanda on independence day, will not forget that day; as Tanzania was seen as not principled despite sending the Vice PresidentAboud Jumbe to the celebrations. The issue of Mzee Kaunda, Jonas Savimbi and UNITA is an issue that has still not been understood.
The third issue is one that concerns Zambia. President Kaunda was severely punished by the settler government of Rhodesia and the apartheid regime of South Africa, to the point that Zambia’s economy completely collapsed. Kaunda had closed the border with Smith’s Rhodesia but TAZARA was unable to transport goods into Zambia. The people of Zambia blamed him for his politics of assisting liberation movements instead of focusing on Zambia’s interests. Contrary to his agreement with his fellow leaders, and contrary to his promise that he “would not open the border until Zimbabwe gained independence”, KK decided to open the border with Zimbabwe. In the meeting of the Frontline States a big dispute arose between Presidents Machel, Neto, Kaunda and Nyerere. Mzee Joseph Butiku, who was then Nyerere’s Chief of Staff, has said that it was one of the most difficult meetings he attended during his time with Mwalimu Nyerere. Butiku states that “in the middle of the meeting leaders began to cry. Our role as assistants is to make a record of the conversations, I simply wrote that ‘the presidents are weeping!’”. Zambia was eventually allowed to carry on with its plans. A similar thing happened to President Machel in 1984 following the Nkomati Accord with the Apartheid regime of South Africa and this led to Nyerere “chasing him away” when he went to give him a recap.
Zambia came under military attack from Ian Smith’s Rhodesia and Apartheid South Africa and was even threatened with nuclear bombing by the Apartheid regime.
Kenneth Kaunda’s power handover was a big lesson on democracy for Africa when he conceded defeat in an election and handed over the presidency to Frederick Chiluba in 1991. Kaunda was a president who was very modest to the point that by the time he relinquished the presidency, he did not own a house. When Chiluba took over, he gave Kaunda a hard time, going to the extent of imprisoning him for treason. Mzee Kaunda went on a hunger strike while in jail which he only ended when Mwalimu Nyerere visited him. Dr Levy Patrick Mwanawasa, the third president of Zambia, returned KK to the status of Father of the Nation, giving him all his dues as a retired president, which he continued to receive until his death.
In Development as Rebellion: Julius Nyerere A Biography, Prof Issa Shivji, Prof Saida Yahya-Othman and Dr Ng’wanza Kamata explain how shocked President Kaunda was by the terrible condition of the road to Butiama (Nyerere’s home village). He came to the conclusion that the driver had gone the wrong way as it was not possible that the road to the president’s house could be in such a terrible condition. But it is more shocking that President Kaunda did not have his own home when his presidency ended as he had served his country and never thought of himself. Without a doubt, the first generation of African leaders was unique and I do not think that Africa will get leaders of Kenneth Kaunda’s calibre again. May God rest his soul in peace.
Hamba Kahle KK. You are the last to depart. Greetings to Nyerere, Bibi Titi, Samora, Josina, Winnie, Mandela, OR Tambo, Lumumba, Neto, Mondlane, Hani, Chipeto, Marcelino and all the others who gave their blood and sweat to liberate us.
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Nairobi, Nairobae, Nairoberry
Cacophonous, labyrinthine, gluttonous, angry, envious, charming, paradoxical, mysterious, confusing, alluring.
Nairobi. A cacophony of matatu hoots and booming bongs from church bells. All in inexplicable harmony. Like a Beethoven piece. A muezzin’s melody moves the ummah from a minaret here, a bus conductor — shouting from the most pimped out mathree — moves umati there. A hawker here. An ambulance there. But there’s also a silent monotone. The sound of hope dying. Of someone stealing two billion every day, of the clock going tick-tock from your 9 to 5. There’s that saying: if a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? But what if it’s in the middle of Waiyaki Way? Just because someone thinks giving us an expressway will absolve him of war crimes. While in reality, all it does is leave all the marabou storks homeless.
Nairobi. A labyrinth of lipstick-stained shot glasses and semi-filled ashtrays. Where a party starts regardless of where the limbs of the clock point. And only ends when everyone is browned out and on the brink of calling the one that got away. Nairobi is looking for coins during traffic because you want to help the beggar, who is patient enough to receive the donation before snatching your phone. It is being stagnant in that same traffic for long enough to buy crisps made with transformer oil and served in compact disk wrapping. And like clockwork, you put the window back up because Nairobbery isn’t just a play on words. But the ones that hurt the most are the conmen, because nigga I trusted you!
Nairobi. Where gluttony is second nature. A kaleidoscope of too much gold tequila and too many smokie pasuas. Of good pasta and wine in overpriced restaurants. Of ramen noodles and pre-cooked meat. Where nothing is ever enough. We drink and eat to our fill because life sucks. Why wouldn’t it? Our last president’s advisor was the bottom of a Jameson bottle and our current one’s advisor is Jesus. The spirit guides the nation either way, I guess. But still, Nairobi tastes like chances and do-overs. It tastes like anxieties and aspirations and I know it doesn’t feel like it but today you omoka na 3-piecer then one day you omoka, for real.
Nairobi. Reeks of piss and thrifted clothes. Fresh bakeries and Subway. Old currency and that one cologne every man in their early 20s wears. Smells like fighting your titans and sending a million job applications. Nairobi. Where you can go weeks without a lover’s touch but only days without a cop grabbing you by the wedgie into a mariamu because you shouldn’t be idle as you wait for your Uber outside Alchemist. Because of course in that time you should take up a sport, play an instrument, solve world peace, et cetera.
There are few occasions when pride will linger. Like when Kipchoge finishes a marathon in under two hours. When Lupita wins an Oscar. The hubris you feel when your copy makes it to the billboard on UN Avenue. Or when your lame joke gets five retweets because Kenyans on Twitter will massacre you if you think you’re the next Churchill. Orrrr that one time we were all watching Money Heist and so gassed that Nairobi was one of the characters.
Sadly, Nairobi pride also comes in with its individualism. Everyone is out here on their own trying to get some bread whether they’re in the upper class getting baguettes and rye bread or in the lower class getting Supaloaf. I get it though, the city doesn’t let anyone rest from the grind and the hustle and the drudgery. And the wealth gap is bigger than Vera Sidika’s bunda. But ironically, the city is a paradox. An optical illusion. Sometimes the people are so ready to convene in community that it kinda revives the fickle hope you have in humanity. From safe spaces to fundraisers to a simple hearty conversation with your Uber driver.
And there’s obviously that murky feeling of greed that comes from 90 per cent of our politicians. When you’re at the bottom of the food chain it’s called hunger, but the higher you climb the more you want and it becomes indulgence. Greed makes them say and do all kinds of things. Like apologising to Arab countries that are exploiting Kenyans because they don’t want to be cut off. Y’all know any juakali guys we can commission for guillotines? – Heads gotta roll. Because how will I steal cooking oil and flour and end up in a cold cell but they’ll steal billions and end up with a second five-year term?
I think wrath is the most Nairobi-esque of the cardinal sins. We’re angry at the police. At the government, at global warming, at nduthis, at KPLC, at Zuku, at Safaricom, at KCB, at each other. Agonizingly though, our anger fizzles out as fast as it blazes up. I don’t think we’re ever angry enough.
And then there’s the envy. You know you’ll get there eventually but that gets lost in translation when you see someone with better because that sparks something in you even though we are all on different paths at different paces. Whether it’s a BMW or an airfryer, the question stays: Why not me? And also I’m personally jealous of the people who’ve managed to move out of Nairobi to Naivasha, Watamu or wherever. It feels like they’ve figured their way out the maze while I’m still at a dead end wondering whether I can just hop out the sides. Doesn’t matter what it is, our eyes are as green as the parks and spaces we so desperately need in this godforsaken city.
Nairobi. The city of miniskirts and cheers baba jackets. Lust dripping down the sides of our mouths because we can’t seem to contain it under our tongues. I don’t even know why people bother to go to Vasha for WRC when they live in the city of sexual debauchery where the only thing that’s on heat more than the sun is whatever’s between people’s legs. Where even Christian Grey would pause and do a double-take. Where ropes aren’t just for skipping and leashes aren’t just for dogs. If you find ordered love in the city, you must have saved refugees and orphans in your past life. This is the city where the flesh is truly willing.
You know that intense sloth-like feeling when you wanna wake up for Sunday brunch at Brew Bistro or K1 and then later watch Hamilton race at around 4 when all the mimosas have hit your head and you’re surprised that your wig is still intact? Or the next day when you’re trying to get out of your covers and you’re thinking about that beastly Nairobi traffic you’re about to face and all you can do is tweet “Nimewacha pombe mimi”. Truthfully though, other than that and a few other instances, the pace is too fast for me. I just wanna be in a dera next to the beach drinking a passion caipiroska and eating viazi karai cause why are y’all always running?
And y’all are way too fast when coming up with new words too. There’s like a million words for currency, ass, sex, sherehe, et cetera. Truly, there is a certain linguistic je ne sais quoi when it comes to the Nairobian’s language. It stops being a transaction of random syllables and begins to become an understanding of feelings, emotions and behaviour. I, especially, like how we knead it into our art. We sneak it into our music and get phenomena like gengetone.
We compress it into our films and get Nairobi Half Life. We squeeze it into our visual pieces and get Michael Soi. One thing about Nairobians is we do not cower in silence, we have words to say and we shall say them. Even if that means running a president out of Twitter. That’s why our writers are as staggeringly sensational as they are. Ngartia. Sookie. Grey. Muthaka. Laria. Abu. And those are just my friends, dawg.
But it’s not just the writing. The fashion. Rosemary Wangari. Nicole Wendo. Samantha Nyakoe. The music. Mau from Nowhere, Vallerie Muthoni, Karun, Maya Amolo, XPRSO. Just a Band. The films. The painting. Muthoni Matu. Zolesa. The architecture. The cinema. The theatre. Too Early for Birds is back! et cetera. Man, I gotta tell ya, when God was cooking up the cauldron of this city, he went hard on the talent. Quote me on this: a lot of exceptional creatives from this city are gonna hit the world with a head-splitting bang in a couple of years.
Nairobi. Despite the crowds, the queues and the poor drainage, it still has a charm. Mysterious. Confusing. Alluring. Despite the fact that you can only truly enjoy the Nairobi experience if you’re a bird or an expat, me I love it still.
Nairobians, keep sinning, keep winning!
The Enemy Within
Death hangs heavily over people with cancer – it is always there, reminding you of your mortality.
So, this is what happens when a doctor tells you that you have cancer. The first response is disbelief (how can this be true?), followed by anger (I don’t deserve this, I never hurt anyone), and then a deep sense of grief and loss (what will I miss when I die, and how will my loved ones cope without me?)
They say cancer is the result of pent-up anger and resentment. Apparently, years of holding on to these emotions make your cells misbehave and become toxic. Cancer cells end up eating up healthy cells, leaving the body so full of poison that it collapses from lack of vitality. The jury is still out on whether lifestyle choices generate cancer in the body because people who lead healthy lives seem to be as prone to cancer as those who don’t. Nonetheless, when you find out you have cancer, your first reaction is to blame yourself. It is sort of like being told you have HIV. (Was I responsible for this? Was I reckless? Should I have used a condom?)
Friends and relatives will tell you that breast cancer is beatable, that they know so many women who had breast cancer and lived healthy lives years after treatment. What they don’t tell you is that all the literature points to a short life expectancy after the discovery of cancer. The chances of recurrence are high, even with chemotherapy, mastectomy or radiation, the traditional methods to “cure” breast cancer. I have read studies where women who had chemotherapy had an equal chance of recurrence as those who didn’t. So, death hangs heavily over people with cancer – it is always there, constantly reminding you of your mortality.
Most people are so afraid of cancer that they can’t even say the word. The receptionist at an oncologist’s office actually asked me what kind of “C” I had – never used the word cancer. Yet she deals with cancer patients every day. Another oncologist I consulted couldn’t even make eye contact with me and rushed me through a diagnosis I couldn’t understand, perhaps believing that my cancer was contagious?
The thing is that cancer is not like any other disease that can be cured through surgery or drugs. It requires months of treatment and constant monitoring. It’s not like having malaria or a broken bone. It is like having an enemy residing in your body, hostile, predatory, waiting to pounce at any moment.
It seems a positive frame of mind is critical in recovering from cancer. I got calls from women who told me they bounced right back into their lives after months of treatment as if nothing had happened, that I mustn’t believe all the literature, that I should get all the treatments done and go back to living a normal life. They didn’t explain to me why they have been working from home since their treatment started and since their so-called “recovery”. Others are more honest about their experiences. A South African women called to tell me that her experience with chemotherapy had damaged her heart, and she is on life-long medication that makes her urinate every few minutes, which means she can no longer work in an office. Instead of destroying the cancer, the chemo destroyed healthy cells in her heart. She is cancer-free but now disabled in other ways. Another friend told me her aunt died not from the cancer, but from the chemo.
What the doctors and the optimists don’t tell you is that both chemotherapy and radiation have debilitating impacts on your body. They literally are poisons injected into your body to kill another poison. Sort of like a vaccine but not quite because they do not boost your immunity. Both chemotherapy and radiation therapies involve weeks of hospital visits that cost an arm and leg. Nausea, burns on your body, fatigue are common side effects.
A friend from Boston who has studied alternative ways of healing from cancer (including not getting any treatment at all) tells me that each woman with breast cancer has to make an individual choice about what kind of treatment she should get. Doctors trained in Western medicine will be quick to put you on chemotherapy and the other treatments without giving you other options. Desperate and eager to cling onto life, the patient with cancer readily accepts any treatment, not realising that not only is it a very long process, but very costly as well. Mental preparation and psychological support are also necessary before embarking on the long and arduous journey called cancer treatment. People become life-long patients; some recover well, others not so well. Some women opt for no treatment, preferring to lead a good quality of life before the disease ravages the body.
I am looking at alternative methods of healing, including Pranic healing that works on your energy fields and chakras. So far it seems to be helping me, but only time will tell if I will be a success story. I have certainly started eating more, and those dizzy spells in the morning seem to be getting rarer.
The biopsy results are not yet out, so I am still not sure what the oncologist will prescribe, but in Kenya, the modus operandi seems to follow the same script: mastectomy, followed by chemotherapy or radiation and some kind of hormone treatment. Am I ready to go there? Not sure. Women who lose their breasts speak of feeling like an amputee; the loss of an organ that defines their femininity impacts their identity and self-esteem. Others are more casual about losing their breasts, (“It’s just fat,” one woman told me). `
The other thing about cancer is that when you have it, you think of nothing else. Everything is a blur. Someone wants to make small talk, and all you want to do is look the other way or scream. (Can’t you see I have cancer? Do you really want to discuss the weather?) You think about your life in vivid film shots. Your past suddenly comes into sharp focus, both the happy and sad days. You begin questioning the meaning of life in ways you never did before. Cancer prepares you for death the way a fatal car accident doesn’t. Is sudden death preferable to dying slowly because you can’t see it coming? Not sure.
But let me not be the purveyor of doom and gloom. The reason I am writing this article is that I have learned wonderful things about myself and other people. One of the things I have learned is that people can be kind and generous when they know you are in pain. People I don’t even know and have never met have sent me good wishes, prayers and even money for my treatment. Friends and family have sent food and offered accommodation. An Indian friend called to say that if I opted to go to India for treatment, I could stay in his home for as long as I needed. These generous and kind offers have literally brought tears to my eyes.
What I also learned is that my life’s work has not been a waste, and that my readers love and admire me for my writing. I didn’t realise I had inspired so many people, not just in Kenya but around the world, through words I have penned. That is a really important things for me to know and hold onto right now – to realise that I had a gift that I used well, and which helped others. And to know that when I go, my writing will live on.
I also learned that life is very, very short. So, we must not postpone the things we need to do. If your job makes you unhappy, quit. If a relationship is toxic, leave it. If people around you are making you feel bad about yourself, walk away. Surround yourself with people who love and cherish you. Love is very important for human survival, so distribute it freely. Be kind and generous. This thing called life is temporary, so enjoy every moment and live it as if every day is your last.
Someone’s Grandmother Just Died!
It is painful to always have to consider the feelings of others while legitimate calls for acknowledgement of racial injustice and reparations are consistently ignored and dismissed.
Following the death of Queen Elizabeth II, I watched the televised service at St. Giles’ Cathedral in Edinburgh attended by the royals and various Scottish dignitaries, as well as the many hundreds who came out to pay their respects or to be a part of this historical event.
As I watched the outpouring of public emotion, I couldn’t help but wonder what emotions the queen’s death would invoke in those whose lives have been blighted because of the British colonial policies that killed millions and left a legacy of misery and disenfranchisement in countries far too many to name.
At first I was saddened by the news. But then came the reactions of global figures the world over, with some proclaiming outright that Queen Elizabeth had been a guiding light, a symbol of hope and stability in the world. One broadcaster went so far as to say “She was everybody’s grandmother.” My problem was that she wasn’t mine.
My grandmother, born in 1923, was just three years old when the Queen was born, my 81-year-old mother told me when I called to get her reaction to the news that the Queen had died. “She would’ve been 99 years old today if she had she lived,” my mom said. I could hear the emotion in her voice as she remembered her mother. My grandmother died in 1983; she was 59 years old. I was then just 18 years old. I said, “Mom with all the things we know about the racist systems that have kept Black and Brown people oppressed, I really don’t know how I want to feel about the death of the British Queen.” Never one to mince her words, my mom replied, “She was a human being, and we, well you know, we mourn the loss of any life.”
Yes. She may have been a grandmother to many but to me she was a symbol of institutionalized racism in its clearest form. Images of British dynasty have been present in the education of every American who has gone through the public school system since the Second World War during which the United States allied with Britain in their quest for global power and dominance. Yet here was the evil of the Crown being portrayed in the media—as it’s always been portrayed—as providence, something divine. As I listened to a special broadcast by the popular British talk show host James Corden talking to an American audience about the Queen’s passing, his tone struck me as odd: “She will be missed, she was everybody’s grandmother,” he said, going on to tell us how well she had served the country and the world.
As I was listening to Corden and wondering why I was so irritated by his outpouring of emotion, it dawned on me that racism moves from generation to generation, falling back on the old practices of how to colonize a nation: You teach them to love you more than they love themselves. Racism survives because the symbols of racism never die. We carry the symbols in our hearts and in our minds and once we have identified with them, we seek to justify their existence. While I could empathise with those that felt a special connection to the Crown, what I realized and felt most immediately, was the insensitivity I received as an African American who bears the scars of the legacy of slavery that has made the British Empire one of the richest and most powerful nations in the world today.
The next day I watched the funeral procession move through the streets of Edinburgh, the commentators conveying the solemn mood of the people who came out to pay tribute to their Queen. All the while I couldn’t see past the 1989 image of Princess Diana hugging a child suffering from HIV/AIDS. On her first unaccompanied trip overseas, Princess Diana spontaneously broke with protocol and showed compassion towards a suffering Black child with all the world watching, at a time when the stigma of HIV/AIDS was as bad as the disease, and Blacks were being impacted the most and no one else seemed to care. Diana’s humanity helped solidify her reputation as the “People’s Princess” and it radically changed the way AIDS sufferers were perceived.
While the news played on I thought about two recent exchanges I had had in Amsterdam, just outside my front door. The first exchange took place in a cafe.
I was sitting at the bar having a coffee. Another Black male of Surinamese origin was sitting a couple of tables away. It was midmorning and we were the only ones there. In an attempt to start a conversation, as men do, he asked my opinion on the war in Ukraine. I told him I thought it was crazy, all too unreal. The white Dutchman behind the counter leaned over and candidly shared, “I don’t give a shit about the war in Ukraine.” I didn’t speak again and left the bar so abruptly the young brother asked, “You leaving?” I was in no mood to have that conversation so early in the day, having experienced the backlash of the “Black Lives Matter” protest with the counter-narrative that All Lives Matter; I’ve learned that sometimes it’s better to just hold one’s peace and walk away. (It literally is your peace.)
Shortly after that incident, a couple of days later, I had another encounter that made me realize that we simply can’t afford not to care. I had wandered into a tool shop on the corner of my street that looks more like a men’s gift shop inside than a hardware store selling nails, drills and plywood. Behind me walked in a man who apparently knew what he wanted because we reached the cash register at the same time, he with a power drill in his hand. I moved aside to let him be the first in line, not sure if I was done.
The Dutchman behind the counter seemed not to have noticed that the man with the drill wasn’t Dutch and didn’t speak the language. But to his credit, he did know what he wanted: the drill and a bag in which to put the canisters of spray paint he had already placed on the counter. Being familiar with Eastern Europeans, I assumed the man was Polish and asked “Polske?” “No! Ukraine!” he said, then, smiling, added, “Close.”
“Hij wil een tas.” He wants a bag, I said to the clerk; bags are not automatically handed out after a purchase these days. The clerk then understood and reached under the counter. I was pleased I could help and the Ukrainian was happy as well. To my surprise, as I placed my items on the counter, the Ukrainian tapped my shoulder and offered a fist bump.
I say all this to say of the human condition that people appreciate what they understand. And sadly enough, we rarely think about injustice until it is visited upon us.
Whose permission do we now need to talk about racism and the policies that still impact us today? Africa and the African diaspora’s historical issues are and always have been about racism and this is why members of this group, my group, will always hold a contrarian view when the West attempts to compel us to join them in their moment of grief. My grandmother died in 1983, at the young age of 59, in a small southern town next to a river; there was no horse and carriage, no media. The British Empire once covered the whole world, a dominance that was achieved through suppression and oppression. Many atrocities were committed and entire communities decimated under the authority of the Queen. I was raised never to speak ill of the dead because they aren’t here to defend themselves but I will submit this: it is painful to always have to consider the feelings of others while legitimate calls for acknowledgement of racial injustice and reparations are consistently ignored and dismissed. Where is the same fervour and energy for those issues that matter to us?
When we as Black people keep the peace, we empower the presence of the historical lie that we are inferior and thus require control. When we remain silent we allow the systems of the institutions and the prejudices that block our collective growth to thrive. Why should we care about the death of the Queen when the Queen has stood for the oppression of our people? Why should we be guilt-tripped into silence, into not speaking out about the dead, into not pursuing our freedom? When will our emergency, the issues that impact Black and Brown people, become a top concern for the White world? When will I be able speak without fear of being branded just another angry black man, angry for what I don’t have that others do?
Sad as the Queen’s death is to those that survive her, honouring her service is a symbolic gesture that must be contextualized because, for many, and not just in the UK but all over the world, the English monarchy is a symbol of oppression. I recently listened to a podcast in which a Black podcaster scolded an guest who said this of the Queen: “She is the symbol of colonialism and racism for many; however much we want to romanticize the Queen of England’s long reign on the throne as a stabilizing force on earth, she has also allowed many human rights violations on her watch”. The podcaster’s response was a classic putdown, “Why do Black people have to always bring up racism? Someone’s grandmother just died!”
Racism endures because when we identify with its symbols, we will do anything and everything in our power to justify and defend them.
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